The first round of auditions for Juilliard’s pre-college program is by video. From December to March my son practiced for three hours a day to prepare. At the end of March we recorded him playing Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33, by Saint-Saëns, and we sent it off to Juilliard.

The results of the first round came quickly. He made the cut.

The art of practicing is finding a process for repetition without boredom.

Then he practiced three hours a day for two more months. The piece he played is about four minutes long. So it’s probably difficult for you to imagine how he spent three hours a day for six months working on that one piece. But practicing—for anything—is a science.

When he told his teacher he was bored, she told him boredom in practice comes from a lack of engagement. She showed him how to recognize disengagement. Then she taught him to look more closely at each note and listen more deeply with his ears and his heart.

He learned to practice by changing the rhythm of the piece. He learned to play one note at a time with a tuner. He learned to play each measure with a different metronome timing, and then he played the piece so slowly it took 20 minutes instead of just four.

During these insane lessons my son spent one hour on five notes; the more we worked on the art of practicing the more I saw that practice is a method to do anything ambitious and difficult. Through hard work, he learned to create a system and process instead of just focusing on the goal itself.

The best processes speed up the cycle of frustration and recovery.

The first 3,000 hours of cello lessons are learning how to recognize a wrong note and stop and fix it. And now he has to learn how to recover from failure, very quickly, so when he plays a wrong note in competition he can move on immediately. Even though I don’t know if he’s sharp or flat, I do know that if he’s sulking about making a mistake—he can’t focus on not making the mistake.

Resilience is about being able to get back up on your feet on your own, so I teach him not to rely on other people to prop him up. “You don’t need a teacher to tell you how great you are. Tell that to yourself. Right now.”

It’s a hard concept. On different days I tell it to him differently. And then I watch hopefully, because I tell that to people I coach all the time and I know it’s hard, even for adults.

Last Thursday was the big day.

My son is on a mission.

I am on a mission, too. I want to hug him and high-five him and tell him he blows me away with his hard work. But I don’t want to embarrass him, so I take pictures instead.

Until he says, “Mom, put your phone down! You’re embarrassing me.”

Breaking things down into small steps isn’t enough. Make them smaller.

It’s impossible to put all your energy into something really difficult if everything is riding on the result. The people who are the best at reaching big goals have an obsessive drive toward the goal, but also, they are able to break down the process of meeting the goal into tiny, bite-sized pieces and then take pleasure in completing each part.

When someone is unable to relish the small steps, they just stop. Because process starts to seem hopeless if you constantly focus on the end. You have to have a proclivity for hard work (which might be as crucial and inheritable as talent) combined with the ability to take joy in the process itself.

He practices facing the accompanist so they can see how each will play particular parts.

Then he turns his back to her because that’s how it’ll be at the audition. She watches his arm and his head for cues. They don’t have to talk. They both just know that this is what will happen.

He has been eating carefully and sleeping carefully for a week. He reminds me of how I used to work to peak for the beach volleyball season and recover over the winter. And he reminds me of everyone who has ever worked hard for something that is a long shot: He is nervous.

No process works without a coach who deeply understands the goal. 

The teacher has been training him for nerves as well. We scheduled five competitions prior to this audition so he would get used to playing this concerto under pressure. People perform better—in any circumstance—with a little bit of stress. Top performers self-regulate to generate the optimal amount of stress.

The teacher had him run up and down our street to get his heart rate up and then had him sit down to play his piece while his pulse was still racing. And the other day when he came home from a basketball game he wiped his hands all over his face and played his piece with sweaty palms.

Now he gets dressed and he waits. I can’t read music and I can’t tell what’s in tune, but I do know what it’s like to have focus, so we have practiced waiting. In this outfit. I made him stand by our front door, where there is nothing to look at. And I didn’t tell him how long he’d be waiting. And he practiced controlling his thoughts and his nerves.

Finally, here we are, and he looks so grown up to me.

The door opens. He goes into the room, and he plays.

I wait. The kids in the other practice rooms are too loud for me to hear him. So I just think good thoughts.

And it’s over.

We won’t know the results for another two weeks. But we already know that he worked incredibly hard and he grew from each step of preparation.

So he already won. Because now that he’s done this for cello, he can do it for any part of his life in the future.

Update: He got in!

136 replies
« Older CommentsNewer Comments »
  1. Amy Kovach
    Amy Kovach says:

    Beautiful, educational and inspirational. Thank you.
    (I drove through Swarthmore a few days this week. Very sweet town. I thought of you.)

  2. Jacqueline Sullivan
    Jacqueline Sullivan says:

    Penelope, this my all-time favorite post. I loved it so much, I read it aloud to my eldest son and showed him your photos story book style! His goal is to become a professional soccer player and I found many lessons we can apply from this single post. It’s audacious to think he could actually meet his goal, but then again, that’s precisely what’s needed–audacity. I’m now going to go back and read all your posts about beach volleyball!

  3. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    What a gift to experience! I remember all of the pieces I practiced well. It’s as if they imprint on your soul. Congrats to you both.

  4. Liz Sisk
    Liz Sisk says:

    Wonderful post! Kudos to a wonderful parent! And kudos to a wonderful young man who is following his dreams! The very best and he for sure is a winner….right now.

  5. Jeffery
    Jeffery says:

    I’m a student at Juilliard (college division) so I definitely remember my nerves during my audition! Best of luck to y’all!

  6. Robert. McNally
    Robert. McNally says:

    I was a violinist for 70 years,married to my violin,and thanked God for it .Raised 5 children and made a decent living.I could’nt be happier with my life!!Love music!

  7. me
    me says:

    *standing ovation*

    BRAVO !

    Amazing, inspiring post: this kind of resilience is something I can only dream of.

    (Too bad I didnt know any of this many years ago when I slogged through 9 years of (very mediocre) violin study …)

  8. Sharon Teitelbaum
    Sharon Teitelbaum says:

    What’s brilliant about this is that you had your son practice so many of the challenges that the audition would likely generate OTHER THAN the main thing, practicing the piece. You broke it down into so many other important elements! I wish I’d thought this way when my kids were younger. I wish I’d thought this way when I was preparing for the workshops I used to lead. Thank you so much for writing this post.

  9. Joe Fecarotta
    Joe Fecarotta says:

    Great post. I was discussing this with my niece who participates in pageant competitions. I said to her that you put all your effort into the prep and competition and you have already won. The lessons and growth happen there. “Winning” the competition is not in our control. The art of happiness is to let go of outcomes, and as your son has discovered, somehow enjoy the process.

  10. Gerhard de Klerk
    Gerhard de Klerk says:

    Congratulations from the other side of the world! He is already a winner, no matter the outcome – he has learned to work for his dream. I’m reading this at 5:30 am, my 14-year old daughter is practising violin in preparation for her AMusA (Associate in Music, Australia) exams – we do this in the morning because she also is not too bad at netball (and basketball in summer), and needs to practice those too – I have a constant fear for a finger injury! Her friends have no idea how much practice and effort she puts in to achieve her music goals, and frankly I don’t think many would put in the time. I can’t pick an off-key note either – I sit in for encouragement (I did study the physics of bowed instrument sound though).
    Good luck for your son, I hope he gets the nod. He is privileged to have a dedicated parent!

  11. Alexa
    Alexa says:

    I loved this post and really needed it this evening. Thank you. Also, he looks so much like you in these photos; it is nice to see.

  12. Coriander
    Coriander says:

    Sending good thoughts for your son and you!

    This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read about the overall nature of practicing and performing. I think you’re a brilliant mom, and he’s lucky to have you, with your understanding of business. You bring a completely different view to the art, and it’s outstanding.

    Your post also hit a huge nerve with me, and explained something I’ve been struggling with for 20 years. I started playing the violin when I was 3 1/2. I worked up to going to university for a performance degree. A few bad circumstances and I just stopped. When you described this: “When someone is unable to relish the small steps, they just stop. ” I realized that’s exactly what happened. I found no pleasure or interest in the process, so I stopped. But I still longed to enjoy the benefit of playing. It’s been hard.

    Through reading the above, I also realized how much of my adult life was influenced from those early years of lessons and experiences practicing and learning how to practice. I had many lessons on just one or two notes. Even now, when I encounter a problem in my work place, I look for variations on how I can accomplish things – a direct lesson from practicing hard passages over and over, in rhythms, in different tempos, etc.

    While I had a similar dream of Julliard as a child, it wasn’t meant for me. In order to really succeed in music at the level you’re discussing, you’re doing what your son needs to do to get him there. I know that hard work will take him places!

  13. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    Everything in this is exactly right. I’m considering making this required reading for my students.

  14. Nancy DeVries
    Nancy DeVries says:

    I really liked this post. It gave me some insight into what I can do to stay focused on my goal. Thanks so much for writing about this. I hope your son is proud of his accomplishments.

  15. Nicolas Calvo Rosenstone
    Nicolas Calvo Rosenstone says:

    Thank you for writing this fantastic piece. I’m a classically trained cellist who now works for a foundation in the communications department. I thank my concervstory education (undergrad and graduate school) for the majority of my success in my career as well as my work ethic and discipline. It has been the reason I am successful at what I do in my career completely unrelated to music.

    A music education is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child.

    Thank you again.

  16. Fatcat
    Fatcat says:

    Learning to control anxiety and go on and do the task when nervous might be the most valuable thing. Wow. I hope he gets what he wants. :-)

  17. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey. We have a young performing artist in the family, and I will read this with him. And please, please tell us what happens, if that’s alright with your son! Wishing him all the best!!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thank you, everyone, for your interest and good wishes. A lot of times I’ve felt isolated during our journey. All your wonderful comments show me there is a whole world of people who understand and appreciate this approach to learning. It’s nice to be part of this community.

      Penelope

  18. Adam
    Adam says:

    I’m a cellist, and I was considered somewhat of an advanced student as well when I was growing up. I think the advice here is problematic.

    First, if the student isn’t being engaged, then there are lots of things they can study about either that piece or other parts of the musical process that can stimulate engagement. While going deeper is one way – in my experience both as a student and as a teacher, that type of engagement is an adult engagement. Kids need to be kids, and explore and have curiosity, and not like things – and throw tantrums. While playing 4 or 5 notes can become interesting, there’s really no reason to teach that way. Music is basically a fractal. All the components, become the building blocks, which then become the theory, which then becomes the resonance. Any part of that structure helps develop the other parts. I don’t know anyone who isn’t interested in some form by rhythm, theory, music, resonance, or the psychology of performance. Any one of those aspects can be the focus – and any one of those will help a student achieve a goal.

    Second, there is absolutely no reason an 11 year old needs to learn a piece to perfection – and there’s no reason that intonation, and perfection should be required. Those things will come – as they are more a part of the ear / physicality connection. Practice the physicality – practice improvising, practice choosing consonant sounds over dissonant sounds – and that process continues to refine. Intonation is a performance of the body-mind connection. Practicing it outright is boring even for me – I can’t imagine an 11 year old practicing in that way being a positive experience.

    In the end I hope this student achieves whatever he wishes in life, but part of me hopes he doesn’t make it into Julliard. There’s so much more to life than music, and he is just 11! The principle of the NY Phil didn’t even start playing until he was 14!. Just let the kid be a kid… please…. from one (almost prodigy) to another. He needs his kid time, and this is not that. And 3 hours a day is not that.

    Oh and by the way, there is nothing that can be physically achieved by 3 hours a day of physical practice. The body can’t really receive more than 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. If he wants to not get overuse issues, he really shouldn’t play that often, or that much.

  19. Sherri Anderson-Cunningham
    Sherri Anderson-Cunningham says:

    What an amazing opportunity! I loved your article and the pics. He’s a handsome kiddo and has accomplished so much already. He should be very proud of himself :)

  20. Hilary Silvert Newell
    Hilary Silvert Newell says:

    You are doing an awesome job, this is a great post,and….

    what I really want to know is where you live and what Amy the cello teacher’s contact information is. We have spent tens of thousands of dollars on instruction for cello and viola, and no teacher has managed to convey HOW to practice the way you describe.

    Kudos to you for enabling the journey, and congratulations on finding an instructor who can help ypur son make it.

  21. Laura
    Laura says:

    My son is 3 years old. He´s been playing the cello for 1,2 years already.
    Just the thought of an audition makes me nervous.
    I really hope the best for this kid. THE VERY BEST.

    • Bailey
      Bailey says:

      This is a joke, right? A 3 year old playing cello? For over a year!

      No toddler willfully picks up a cello as a matter of curiosity or fun unless a parent shoves it in to his tiny hands and refuses to let him let go.

      • Laura
        Laura says:

        Well,mine did. The music teacher from his preeschool called me once so I could see “what my son could do on a cello”. I was the first one been surprised. But, believe me,as a 7month old pregnant woman ,with yet another toddler younger then the “cellist” , I have no time to ” put any instrument” (or anything by that matter) or pressure any of my kids to do anything they don’t want to do. Of course, I support him and take him to classes (A great teacher,from a big music school heard from him and “adopted him” as her youngest student) but the only thing I “shove into his hands” is his daily breakfast!

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Tons of kids start string instruments that young. And if you think about most Olympic athletes they didn’t quite pick their sport. Ski competitors had parents who lived near a mountain and skiing was second nature. Michael Phelps was at the pool because his parents dragged him to his sister’s swim lessons.

        Every kid chooses from what they perceive is available. And parents tell kids what’s available, either implicitly or explicitly.

        Penelope

        • Bailey
          Bailey says:

          If I understand Laura correctly, her son is 3 and has been playing for 1.2 years. So he started playing cello at 2 (or possibly 1).

          I agree that children start string instruments young. Yo-Yo Ma started violin at 3 and cello at 4. He had musical parents: Mom singer, Dad composer and teacher. As toddlers Yo-Yo and his sister were woken at 4 am to practice. That doesn’t sound like a happy childhood, at least to me, although it’s hard to argue with the results.

          I don’t know the cello as well as you do, but it’s hard to imagine a 2 year old having the motor skills and concentration required to achieve proper technique on an instrument as large as a cello. Piano, violin, skiing, swimming? Yes.

          It’s also difficult to imagine that a daycare’s music teacher would just happen to have a cello on hand unless Laura enrolled her son in a musically themed center, which might be the case but it sounded more like this was all an unexpected discovery at a run of the mill daycare. Cellos are expensive and not toys, yet maybe today’s daycare centers are more sophisticated.

          Cellos seem like a bigger beast to tame, a steeper mountain to climb, too much for a 2 year old to pick up and take to. But maybe it’s possible, prodigies are by definition statistical outliers. Which makes accomplish here all the more impressive. Good luck to both sons!

  22. Brett Campbell
    Brett Campbell says:

    Wonderfully articulated article Penelope. I wish all parents of young music students could read it and gain an understanding of the level of effort required for serious musical instrument study and its immense cognitive rewards. Your understanding of the work and its quantum levels of detail are accurate and of immense benefit to your son for the rest of his life.

  23. Susan C
    Susan C says:

    This blog post is so well written. I have never truly appreciated classical music, but I do love to hear the cello. Prayers for your son, that he will know, beyond a doubt, how amazing he is and how loved and supported he is by his mom! Cheering him on!!

  24. Mark Henriksen
    Mark Henriksen says:

    We were at Juilliard also with our 13 year old violinist. Our experience was similar. I try to remind our daughter that excitement and nervousness will give her performance that boost that it needs to be exciting; so don’t fear it. ALL big name soloists get nervous so you are in good company. You are performing very close to the level of your preparation (regardless of the small flaws you hear during performance). I also stress the BIG picture; whether its the best you’ve every played or the worst (or somewhere in between), you will pick up the violin tomorrow and get back to work in the practice room. Its never one performance or audition but the long term. There are so many examples that prove this in music and science, the two fields I’m familiar with. This is the basic attitude of people who become professional musicians.

  25. Adrienne
    Adrienne says:

    I haven’t commented on a blog in over 5 years i bet. But, i just loved this story SOOO much i had to. What a well written story of an amazing little man. He’s so impressive! Can’t wait to hear what the results are. Good job

  26. Esther Ware
    Esther Ware says:

    Thank you so much for your post; I love your perspective and the attention you gave to details that may be somewhat foreign to you. I so needed to read this – today, especially. I am a professional musician as well, and often experience the disengagement battle your son’s teacher spoke of. I never looked at it that way, and it makes complete sense. What a gift you have in Amy; she tackles both warring factions in every musician, young or old: the mind and the body (technique), and then equips your son to meet them head on in battle. I am presently preparing my daughter for placement auditions for summer music festivals, and I am definitely going to quote you in my many pep talks to her these next few weeks. Thank you again for your words; your son is a vastly different person and musician -not because of results of any competition or opinions from a panel of judges or faculty – but because of the journey you allowed him to walk and what he learned along the way.

  27. Mia Schnaible
    Mia Schnaible says:

    Sounds like he did everything he could for his best performance.
    And from that smile, I would say he is happy on how he did.
    So, win, lose or draw; he should be proud of his accomplishments.

    I am now hooked on his story and can’t wait for the next installment.

    Congratulations on a job well done!!!

  28. Katrin Schenk
    Katrin Schenk says:

    I read your post to my 11-year old trumpet player…we were just in NYC to see Don Giovanni (he is an opera fan) and read about the Juilliard Pre-college program. Wish he could do it but we live 6 hours south in VA! The article was VERY inspirational to my son who is preparing for his first solo recital on July 8th. Thank you!

  29. Angela
    Angela says:

    My equally self-motivated 9 year-old auditioned and got into the Royal College of Music in London last month and the experience was very similar (such as moments of “You don’t need a teacher (or RCM) to tell you how great you are. Tell that to yourself. Right now.”) You could have been telling her story – except she is younger and isn’t allowed to compete (by me) so she practiced playing for friends (toddlers were especially difficult). She also goes to regular school so she doesn’t get to practice as much… I wish your son every success and please keep us posted!!!

  30. Mare
    Mare says:

    Loved this! I found it via Facebook. You know we on Facebook who read the article will like to know if he gets accepted into Juliard.

  31. Dara Luangpraseut
    Dara Luangpraseut says:

    Congratulations to you both! Great blog about deep practice. My daughter had classes with your son and Amy B. at CSI. What an amazing accomplishment for him to be able to audition at such a high level! I try to cultivate this type of mindset and practice approach with both my daughters who play cello (even though they most likely will never audition at Juillard) because as you wrote, “now that he’s done this for cello, he can do it for any part of his life in the future.”

    I’m also happy to discover your blog which has excellent career advice for everyone, not just Gen X and Y :)

  32. Judy Tillson
    Judy Tillson says:

    Congratulations. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on practicing and preparing for an audition like this one. I’m sharing this with my grandchildren who are all either in music classes or dance classes, All are performers.

  33. Stormy
    Stormy says:

    What a great article and great lessons drawn from the experience. You’ve both won in this one! Job well done, mom. Job well done, son. Now I really want to know the outcome, (Non-Juliard violinist, here). Please, share the results, when you get them!

  34. Miki
    Miki says:

    I think you got it. It’s not if he continues on to be a professional musician; he has learned how to tackle anything. He also realizes that it takes focus, dedication, and he may not be able to hangout with friends, or play video games incessantly. He has to work hard for satisfaction. My hat is off to you as a mother who wants more than the standard for her child. He’s going to make it; I know. Why? I have 3 children who are professional artists. I was fortunate only one is a musician; one is a sculptor; the other does commissioned portraits and web design.

  35. Naila Kassim
    Naila Kassim says:

    Beautifully written and your child sounds exceptionally talented. I pray he gets in and please do keep us posted. Also I do hope after trying so much If God for bid he doesn’t get some great news it doesn’t put him off with all the hard work he’s put him. You would need to handle that with care. But I am sure God always repays hard work and your child will definitely make it!!!

  36. mike
    mike says:

    Good luck. I’m sure there are a lot of positive lessons (not limited to the cello) learned in this process for him, whatever the outcome.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hi, Kenan. I’m really sorry to tell you but there is not really anything else. That’s what you need to do. If you spend three hours a day practicing repertoire that other kids spend 30 minutes a day practicing, then you’ll have to figure out more meticulous ways to practice. So the rest sort of takes care of itself.

      Because things come to you when you work really hard at something. The best coaches notice you when you work really hard, and they start showing you better ways to practice. And pretty much everyone wants to help a driven, dedicated person, no matter what they’re doing.

      It’s very hard to be so committed to something. I don’t even think most adults can do it, let alone a kid. I think that in many ways it might actually be more difficult to decide to commit three hours a day every day than it is to actually do the practicing once you’ve made the commitment

      I hope this helps. And I hope you find the thing that you want to commit to in your life — whether it’s music or something else.

      Penelope

  37. Laura
    Laura says:

    I just read this post via Business Insider, and I so have everything crossed for your boy! And know that even if now is not the time, clearly it will be someday! Hope he gets in and can’t wait to read the follow up x

  38. Joe Cassavaugh
    Joe Cassavaugh says:

    Just a great article. I posted a link to the one on Business Insider to my local game-dev group (Georgia Game Developers Association) because I thought it has some excellent insight into pursuing excellence (which is useful for so many things in addition to musical expertise).

    Really nice article. Thanks for sharing.

« Older CommentsNewer Comments »

Comments are closed.